If you're paddling a tandem canoe, the bow (front) paddler paddles on one side and the stern (back) paddler paddles on the opposite side. Changing sides or hand positions is not done, unless there is a need to rest tired muscles, perhaps every 15 to 20 minutes or so.
As a solo paddler, the same rule applies. Making the boat go straight or turn right or left is accomplished by paddling on just one side. If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, take a lesson or two. You'll be glad you did. When you have the correct paddling technique, you won’t fatigue as easily.
Paddling a canoe employs strokes that have evolved over hundreds of years by people paddling thousands of miles. It is not about strength, but rather, technique. A proper stroke employs the strength of the torso as much as the arms.
Below are the fundamental canoe strokes you should be familiar with and the basics of how to perform them.
The forward stroke might seem like an intuitive stroke that everyone automatically knows. However, most newbies tend to have the paddle blade too far out from the canoe. This results in propelling the canoe forward, but it also makes it turn.
Executed properly, the paddle should parallel or nearly so the center or keel line of the canoe, with the paddle blade entering the water at roughly a right angle to the direction of travel.
Torso rotation is as much a part of the stroke as arm movement. While your hips essentially remain stationary in the canoe, your shoulders will rotate toward the side of the canoe you are paddling on, thus reducing fatigue.
The J stroke helps stern or solo paddlers keep the canoe going straight. The J stroke begins with the standard forward stroke. At the end of the forward stroke, twist the paddle with the grip (top) hand so that the thumb of the grip hand is pointing downward.
The power face of the paddle is the one pulled against the water in the forward stroke. In the J stroke, at the end of the forward stroke, the power face is turned outward, away from the canoe.
Appropriately, the path of the paddle describes a “J.”
The paddling strokes above are the basic ones you'll need to know for any canoe trip. It is important to understand that often paddlers employ strokes in combination. For example, the bow paddler might employ a cross draw, while the stern paddler employs a stern sweep to turn the canoe.
For more detailed and advanced paddling instruction, consult your local canoeing clubs and quality paddling publications.
(All illustrations by Sarah Lampe.)